It is sometimes said in the Catholic world, “Men, like fish, are caught by their heads.” Just as you have to hook a fish in its mouth, so too, to bring someone into the Catholic faith, you have to hook their intellects.
I’ve most often heard this line in connection with apologetics. You get someone to be a Catholic by winning a war of apologetics.
But let us consider, this Easter, that apologetics is both too intellectual and not intellectual enough for the depths of catching men by their heads.
First, consider how profound our intellectual connection to the faith is. In fact, faith is an intellectual virtue.
You can’t love God without having some sense of who and what God is. That doesn’t mean you have to exhaust the meaning of God. It’s impossible to have exhaustive knowledge of God, and it is love that brings us to know God better. It might be true that you can’t love what you don’t know—but you also can’t get to know what you don’t love, because love is what brings us to ponder who God is.
That is all the more true of Jesus. We have to discover Jesus, have to have some knowledge of him, in order to fall in love with him—and then we only get to know him by loving him enough to gaze at him. Love and knowledge are a circle.
So too with hope. We cannot hope in Jesus unless we have some idea of how Jesus can help us. Until we have some knowledge of the promises of Jesus, there can be no hoping in him—and living in that hope leads us deeper into knowledge of the promises.
Faith, says a standard line, allows us to hope, and then, as we discover Jesus as our hope, as we know how much he helps us, we fall in love with him. And then that hope and love lead us back into deeper knowledge, deeper faith.
And yet faith, trustful hearing of the teachings of our faith, is somehow the foundation of our life in Christ. And that means too that our knowledge of Christ is fundamental. It doesn’t end in our “heads,” but somehow it begins there. We build upside down, with the foundations in our heads.
Now, on the one hand, that means apologetics often doesn’t take our “heads” seriously enough. Sometimes it seems like, as with fish, we hope to “hook” people by their heads—then remove the hook and go on as if our knowledge of Christ was irrelevant once we’ve crossed the line into the boat of the Church.
I discovered this personally in my Bible reading. There was a period, especially around the time I entered the Church (twenty years ago this Easter!) that I found myself reading the Bible only for apologetics. The Bible was no longer speaking to me, it was only a source of one-liners that I could use to “hook” Protestants.
But the Bible is so much deeper than that. The Bible is our endless source of knowledge of Christ. For many Catholics, step one of discovering the Bible is to forget about apologetics, forget about what it says to “other people,” and start discovering what the Bible says to you.
Faith isn’t something we use just to get people into the Church, and then we throw it away. Faith is the foundation of our whole life in Christ. From the pages of the Bible—and, yes, the Catechism, the great spiritual writers and theologians, the Magisterium—we nourish our faith, which leads us to hope in Christ and love him deeper, which leads us to seek his face again.
Like fish, men are caught with their heads. But unlike fish, we never remove the hook, we must always be drawn deeper in.
That’s the way that apologetics isn’t intellectual enough. But in another sense, apologetics is too intellectual.
That’s where this Easter is a good time to rediscover the Catholic life of the mind. When we read the Passion on Good Friday and Palm Sunday, when we read about the Last Supper and then about Easter, we were reading, we were learning, we were using our minds. But we weren’t getting “arguments.”
A standard way to phrase this is that it isn’t about “head knowledge.” I think that phrase misses the mark. It sounds like we should stop reading, stop listening to the readings, and somehow go some “heart” place, as if our heads weren’t connected to our hearts. Rather, say that the deepest knowledge isn’t about argument, it’s about meditation and contemplation.
In the amazing readings of this last week, we discovered Jesus. We need to delve deeper and deeper into these readings. Deeper than apologetics, deeper than one-liners and proof texts, beyond any knowledge that we will leave behind once we’ve crossed the line into the Church.
Rather, we should seek the knowledge that leads to hope and love, and in hoping and loving be drawn back to know ever deeper. We should contemplate the face of Christ, on the page of Scripture. That’s how Catholics use their heads.
How do you study the face of Christ?